Auto Electronics

Auto Electronics Means More than Silicon

Much has been written about the ongoing rise in the electronic content of automobiles. But getting a handle on just how much content is in the average vehicle now and how much will be there in the future is not so simple. There’s plenty of data to suggest that the use of electronics is growing. However, this data enlightens and confuses at the same time.

For example, some sources quantify electronics content as a percentage of the vehicle’s base cost. A report by just-auto.com describes how the electrical and electronic content of a vehicle (its electrical power and control system) represents 25% of the vehicle’s base cost today and will reach 40% by the year 2010.

But other sources try to assign an actual dollar value to the content. According to a report from IMS Research, the average automotive electronic content per light vehicle is expected to rise from $400 in 2003 to $600 in 2012. Still another source, Freescale Semiconductor, factors in the value of all electromechanical and micromechanical components, counting sensors and actuators, relays and minimotors, to arrive at some numbers for the “the total value of electronics and electrics in a vehicle.” According to this source, those devices accounted for about $2,250 five years ago and will account for $3,870 in 2010.

Without closely scrutinizing these sources, it’s difficult to know exactly what these various estimates and averages refer to or whether they agree or disagree. Nevertheless, such numbers paint a rough picture of the current and future levels of electronics usage in automobiles.

Another way to gauge electronics usage is by counting components. In many discussions of automotive electronics, someone will estimate the number of microprocessors found in a given vehicle. The intent is to demonstrate an astounding amount of computing power. I’ve seen estimates ranging from a few dozen microprocessors up to a hundred microprocessors per vehicle in some luxury models.

Although microprocessors get most of the glory in the saga of auto electronics development, they have many worthy component co-stars who deserve similar recognition. The sensors, actuators, relays, and motors mentioned above are worth counting. The Fredonia Group has noted that approximately 30 sensors could be found in a typical light vehicle in North America, just a few years ago. And an article last year by Martin Stadler of Teradyne claimed that cars being produced today may have as many as 350 motors.

Naturally for the sensors, there will be signal conditioning circuits and for the motors, motor driver ICs. Then there will be the networking components used to link all of these components and their subsystems together with perhaps 50 or more nodes per vehicle. And given the number of motors and sensors, requirements for filtering, EMI suppression, and circuit protection are likely to be great.

Factor in power management and the number of semiconductor components continues to grow as will the number of passives. It would be easy to ignore this last category, since simple passives are usually overlooked by marketers when assessing the business impact of automotive electronics.

However, according to Dennis Zogbi, president of the Paumanok Group, approximately 800 passive components were to be found in the average vehicle in 2004. Those parts accounted for about $55 in bill-of-materials cost. Future car designs will rely on still more components. A conservative estimate for the average growth in the number of passives per vehicle, says Zogbi, would be about 6% per year.

Of course, the dollar amount for passives pales next to those estimates for silicon content in cars. But ignore passive component development at your own risk, as these parts will continue to play a critical role in the performance and reliability of all automotive electronic systems. And if trends in consumer electronics are any indicator, the spread of passives should provide the impetus for further silicon integration, spurring innovation in IC design.

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